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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Dec. 19, 2003 14 years ago

Coffee Talk (Sara/Mana edition)

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This week's items: The leaders at the Sarasota/Manatee campus of the University of South Florida are going to stick with that slogan - "yes, we are a university townSo, how does this help affordable housing?Worthy distinction

Coffee Talk (Sara/Mana edition)

'Yes, we are a university town.'

The leaders at the Sarasota/Manatee campus of the University of South Florida are going to stick with that slogan - "yes, we are a university town" - to dispel the long-held mentality that the area is not. And as increasing proof that USF leaders are changing the reputation, the school's top officials are pretty proud these days.

Amid all of USF's expansion plans and the record 217 December graduates, USF Sarasota/Manatee also graduated its first class of executive MBA students this month. (Does that mean: "Yes, we are a business town" too?)

Ranging in age from the mid-20s to early 50s (the latter was Army Green Beret and Col. Douglas Carroll of Wesley Chapel, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq while studying), the students spent the past 30 months traveling to the FCCI headquarters at Interstate 75 and University Parkway on Monday and Thursday evenings and Saturdays to earn 56 credit hours to graduate. When the first group began two and a half years ago, they numbered 24. At graduation, there were 22 - the other two moved out of the area. Peter French, associate vice president and dean for academic affairs, attributes the high graduation rate to the MBA program's structure. Students participated in a "cohort," meaning they stuck together as a group and took all of the same courses at the same time. "They build up a sense of solidarity and cooperation," French says. "They just won't let each other quit."

There's another benefit: As French sees it, USF's Sarasota/Manatee MBA program is one of the best MBA values in the nation - $15,000 for an MBA versus $61,000 at Harvard (and that's only the first year!).

So, how does this help affordable housing?

Go figure. Sarasota County's Public Facilities Financial Advisory Board, often referred to as P-FAB, recommended Sarasota County raise its road impact fees an average of 13.5%. But the county staff disagreed and last week urged the county commission to increase impact fees an average of 26.9%. Needless to say, this puzzles 12-year P-FAB member John Cox, owner of Halfacre Construction and steams many members of the region's construction and home building industries.

Cox says the board's recommendation was based on a methodology and formula that P-FAB has used and has been accepted by the county for years. But where the board and county staff differ is on the subject of "credits." P-FAB is recommending the county commission include certain gas taxes as credits. But the county staff rejects those credits, arguing that the commission has previously not recognized those gas taxes in earlier decisions and therefore is not likely to include them now. The commission is expected to decide the fate of the proposed impact fee hikes in March. If approved, the road impact fees would rise from about $1,960 per new home to nearly $2,500 new home. Says Cox: "This is such a dichotomy. We want affordable housing, but we want more impact fees."

Adds Donald McDonough, president of William F. McDonough Plumbing Inc.: "It's just getting out of hand. Rising property values are great. But they've slowed growth down so much in the north county that the scarcity of property and what is left has just gone out of sight. To have more impact fees on top of that, they're never going to have affordable housing here."

And for good measure, Rex Jensen, president of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch and developer of Lakewood Ranch, told Coffee Talk: "It sure hurts when you're trying to do housing at the low end, and anyone who says it doesn't is flat wrong. Impacts on a road don't occur with the last car. They occur with the first car on the road. Unless we figure out a way to focus more on gas taxes and things like that, we're going to continue to have this problem of getting housing out of whack with the market."

Worthy distinction

Many people in the Sarasota area building industry know about Lee Wetherington's generosity. He's the namesake of the Lee Wetherington Boys & Girls Club, a $5 million community center under construction.

Partly because of such philanthropy, the nationally distributed Builder magazine has chosen Lee Wetherington Homes Inc. as one of its three national builders of the year. The magazine, which made the selections from around 3,000 applications, will honor the company next month as part of the National Association of Home Builders' 60th annual convention and the International Builders Show in Las Vegas.

While the company's philanthropy figured in the selection, the magazine also puts the candidates through a rigorous evaluation process. The company had to submit a business and profitability plan. Then the magazine checked on its customer satisfaction.

"We had a good growth period," Wetherington says. "Our profitability was rated in the top 1% in the nation. We had a very high customer satisfaction rating."

The Sarasota-based homebuilder expects sales on about 300 homes this year to reach $107 million. That's about a 49% increase over last year's sales of $72 million.

But Wetherington takes only partial credit for the award and the company's success. "The 81 people in the company are the ones responsible for this honor," he says. "The gratitude comes from 81 people pulling the same way."

County governments rank among the highest techs

When it comes to high-tech governments, the Gulf Coast of Florida has three of the most digitally oriented counties in the nation - Lee, Sarasota and Hernando counties.

In a survey conducted by the Center for Digital Government, in partnership with the National Association of Counties (NACo) and Government Technology magazine, these three counties ranked among the top 10 in the nation in their population categories.

The Digital Counties Survey examined how county governments have progressed in utilizing information technology to improve the overall delivery of services to their customers and citizens. In the 250,000-to-499,999 (population) category, Lee ranked fourth and Sarasota ranked sixth. In the less-than-150,000 category, Hernando ranked second.

In the 500,000-or-greater population category, two Florida counties ranked among the top five - Miami-Dade County, second; and Orange County, third.

Corrections

A real estate brief in the GCBR's Dec. 12-18 issue incorrectly listed the new owner of the Silver Sands Resort. Reliance Silversands LLC, a local investment group, purchased the resort. ResortQuest International will manage the property.

Another item in the same issue incorrectly reported that the Opus LLC property purchase was for a new Singletary Concrete Co. building. It was not. RMC Florida Group will develop the Singletary Concrete Co. at 5305 Fourth Ave. Circle East.

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